A review of “National Gallery,” by Frederick Wiseman (“At Berkeley,” “La Danse”), an immersive trip to a famous London museum. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
Frederick Wiseman, who’s been making documentaries for nearly half a century (most recently “At Berkeley,” “Crazy Horse,” “Boxing Gym” and “La Danse”), has long had a pointillist, painterly approach to his work. Rejecting the typical tools of documentary filmmaking — heads talking to the camera, title cards, mood-setting music — he instead tells a story through an accumulation of dabs; a series of seemingly unrelated moments that combine to create a vivid whole. Appropriately, his newest film profiles a museum — London’s National Gallery — and though Wiseman’s now well into his 80s, his eye’s as sharp as ever.
Movie Review ★★★½
‘National Gallery,’ a documentary directed by Frederick Wiseman. 173 minutes. Not rated. Northwest Film Forum, through Thursday.
Unspooling over a leisurely three hours (the amount of time one might take, perhaps, to explore a museum), “National Gallery” keeps returning to the art itself. We see painting after painting, sometimes filmed so closely that we don’t see the art’s frame (which gives it a sense of an entire world, existing beyond the camera). In between are fly-on-the-wall moments of life at a major museum: finance meetings; PR discussions; art restorers meticulously working in silence; crowds lined up for a major Leonardo da Vinci exhibition; children gathered for an “art for the very young” presentation; a fascinating class in art appreciation for the blind (they touch specially created raised images of paintings); a custodian buffing the already-gleaming floors; students in a drawing class trying to capture the curves of a nude model; an array of faces in galleries gazing at the art, with expressions ranging from rapt to puzzled to sleepy to enchanted.
We eavesdrop as staffers or docents (it’s not clear; nobody is identified for us) guide visitors through the art, offering lively interpretation. One, painting with words, puts her listeners into the world of a Middle Ages work; another explains how Titian was the kind of painter who can “conjure up a poem visually.” And we hear a curator talking about the art of creating an exhibition. “A magic happens,” he says, “as works start talking to each other.”
That magic’s at play throughout “National Gallery,” as its pieces come together. It’s a film about seeing, about finding a story in a frame, about pausing to savor something that might be, as one guide tells us, “a wonderful mixture of observation and imagination.” Wiseman’s camera lingers in the quiet galleries, on the doorways between rooms that present a vista seemingly stretching into infinity, offering endless treasure.